WHEN I take a new management position, I get to know the people I am working with. Then I look at data.
Data gives you a ton of insight into how effectively an organization is being managed. But you must understand what the data is telling you, and then act on it, if it’s to be useful.
At one of my schools, I was reviewing the data about class sizes and the number of majors in each department. Most of the figures looked healthy and sustainable. But one major was an obvious outlier. Let’s call it the Sky-Gazing major.
I invited the department chair to a meeting. Harry had numerous majors in his department. We discussed the health of most of them, and then I asked him why Sky-Gazing had so few students.
“I don’t know,” Harry said.
“What do you mean you don’t know? It’s a major in your unit,” I said. “Is it because the content is not current? Or is it because the professor teaching the introductory course does not engage the students such that they see the content’s relevance? Does the department not promote the career opportunities for students in this major? Or perhaps something else, or a combination of several of these?”
“I don’t know,” Harry replied.
I suggested he find out what was going on and determine how to grow the major. It needed to increase at least 2.5 times to be in the ballpark of the next-smallest major in the business school.
I reminded him that having class sizes of 7 wasn’t economically feasible, and that we would eliminate the major if it didn’t more than double in size in two years.
Harry reminded me that I couldn’t unilaterally eliminate a major—that was the faculty’s decision. I concurred, but indicated that such a small number of students needed few resources, so I would begin reallocating resources to other majors that needed them more.
I also suggested that growing the major was really my goal—I had no interest in eliminating this major, but wanted the department to address the small numbers.
When he left, he understood.
There were two issues going on here. One was the obvious lack of students interested in Sky-Gazing. I believed there were ways to grow the major. But the other was Harry’s lack of awareness of the problem before I called it to his attention, and his initial unwillingness to address it.
As I mentioned earlier, data tells stories, but managers have to use data properly if they want their unit to grow. My job was to ensure that each of my managers did so. While Harry was reluctant that day, he ultimately came around to understanding the importance of the data.
How does your organization use data? Do you maximize its impact or do you just collect it and say, “Gosh, isn’t this interesting?” Good managers use the data to improve products, operations—everything in the organization.
Sometimes data can be used to identify problems with employees. If I’m managing a call center, and Suzy can handle three times as many calls as Joey, I need to chat with Joey to see what’s going on. At a COVID-19 vaccine site, if Roger can inoculate two times faster than Jane and Fred, maybe I should ask Roger to share his process. But if I’m not collecting data, I am probably making decisions on what I think I know, and now what actually is happening.
So what happened to the Sky-Gazing major at my school? Once Harry brought the scant number of majors to the faculty’s attention, they dissected the problem. They discovered the content wasn’t as current as it needed to be, they were not sharing job possibilities, and the professor teaching the introductory course admitted he wasn’t connecting with students. Addressing each of these issues resulted in a threefold increase, which was a win for everyone.
None of that would have happened if I hadn’t reviewed the data and had the tough conversation with Harry.
Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.